Deaths show vulnerability of elderly
An American horror story unfolded at a South Florida nursing home this week when eight residents died in sweltering, unair-conditioned conditions — even though a hospital was directly across the street.
When rescue workers finally entered the building Wednesday, three days after Hurricane Irma knocked out its AC, they found three corpses within the first 10 minutes.
The final tally was eight — including an 84-year-old janitor with 20 great-grandchildren and a 70-year-old mother who liked to play cards and cook Italian food.
The story seemed as shocking as it was tragic. And politicians quickly proclaimed their outrage.
Only here’s the thing: This shouldn’t come as a complete shock.
We live in a state that has systematically rolled back regulations on nursing homes and assisted-living centers and that has repealed protections for the people who live there.
And we live in a country that doesn’t do enough to punish health-care execs who do wrong — as the owner of this place was accused of doing years ago.
In short, we have cooked up a recipe for disaster.
Authorities have launched multiple investigations, including a criminal one, into the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. Details and culpability aren’t yet clear.
But what is completely clear — what I and other journalists in this state have documented for years — is this state’s assault on protections meant to keep vulnerable elderly residents safe.
In 2006 — on the heels of Hurricane Wilma — a bipartisan coalition of legislators sponsored a bill to require all nursing homes to have generators that could cool and run their facilities even when power gets knocked out. The bill died after the industry objected.
“The Legislature is horrible when it comes to everything that doesn’t have a tragedy behind it,” the bill’s main sponsor, Democrat Dan Gelber, told the Miami Herald this week. “They have one now.”
Still, Gov. Rick Scott took things even further in 2011 when he took office — and quickly ousted the state’s lead elder-affairs watchdog.
Ombudsman Brian Lee, who had served both Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, had exposed all sorts of problems at facilities around the state: Bed sores. A woman who said her teeth hadn’t been brushed in a month. A place that had roaches crawling in the pantry and rodent droppings. The examples went on and on.
He and his army of volunteers got results — with family members who called them giving the program a 98 percent satisfaction rate.
But Lee said his vigilance ticked off some of the facility owners — especially when he began pushing for more transpar-
Just 34 days after Scott was sworn into office, Lee and his 98 percent satisfaction rating were history.
But it didn’t stop there. A few months later, legislators began rolling back safety protections, reducing, for instance, the number of hours of direct care nursing homes had to provide to residents.
Much of this was done in the name of “deregulation” — a word that sounds swell until you realize the end result can be a World War II veteran left wallowing in his own filth. Or missed medication. Or death. “What happened in South Florida was a horrific tragedy that should have never happened,” said Lee, who now runs a nonprofit that advocates for nursing-home residents called Families for Better Care. “It was totally preventable.”
Unfortunately, he said, Florida has witnessed “a slow, methodical rollback” of protections for elderly citizens by politicians in Tallahassee who have bought into the industry’s claims that “government oversight” is a bad idea.
But the problems don’t end at the state level. Federal officials have also played patty-cake with accused wrongdoers for years.
Time after time after time, health-care companies are accused of defrauding taxpayers out of millions of dollars … but get off with slaps on the wrist and mutually agreed-upon deals.
Steal a TV? You can get five years.
Accused of stealing millions of tax dollars? You can get a deal. And a license to run another facility. Maybe even a governorship.
Rick Scott was at the center of one of the largest cases of Medicare fraud in U.S. history — a case where the executives walked away after the company paid a $1.7 billion fine.
And the feds accused the owner of this very facility in South Florida — the one where eight people died — of fraud and taking kickbacks back in 2004, only to allow him and his partners to enter into a financial settlement two years later.
This allowed Dr. Jack Michel, whom the U.S. Justice Department identified as “the primary recipient of the kickbacks,” to open another facility ... one that’s now a crime scene.